Cancer without a poker face

Chances are most people know someone who has been diagnosed with cancer. According to the American Cancer Society (2016) approximately 39% of the population will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime. In the late 1500’s, influenza had a detrimental effect on much of Europe, wiping out several Spanish cities. Now, imagine the 21st century obtaining the capability to treat cancer with as much as ease as the common flu, a once deadly disease.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) launched a project in 2006 to characterize the genomic and molecular components of cancer named The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA). This database includes over 10,000 primary tumors over 33 cancer types all sequenced for mutation detection, as demonstrated in Table 1 (Weisenberger 2014). TCGA was created to become a useful resource for researchers to reshape cancer treatment strategies. Cancer genomics is advancing personalized medicine through sequencing and exploration of malignant growth. Each tumor has its own set of genetic  adaptations and understanding these  changes are what tailors to a more specific treatment plan specific to the genetic profile of each patient’s diagnosis (National Cancer Institute 2016).

Table 1: Tumors selected by TCGA for genomic sequencing,

Genome sequencing is the decoding of the all the genetic material in one organism. Just the code, however, does not give much insight as to what it means. Each string of letters must be translated into an understood, universal language that explains how each gene is related and how each part of the genome coordinates to one another (Genome News Network 2003). To decode a genome, it is split into parts, put back together, and analyzed as if it were a puzzle. According to the Genome News Network (2003), there are two ways to dissect a genome. The first approach is the “clone-by-clone” approach which involves breaking the genome into large chunks, called clones. Scientists then figure out where each clone belongs in the genome, sequence each piece, and use overlaps to decipher the entire clone. The other strategy is called “whole-genome shotgun.” The genome is cut into many small pieces, sequenced, and reassembled (Genome News Network 2003). This method is considerably faster, although it is more difficult to piece together many small genome segments.

According to Dr. Neil Hayes, of the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill, and co-principal investigator of the TCGA project, “TCGA was the project that needed to be done; there had to be a large scale profiling of tumors to figure out the genetics of cancer,” (National Cancer Institute 2016). Knowing more about tumors gives insight on their location and how to target them for treatment. Providing researchers with defining characteristics of genomic changes, in specifically subtypes of cancer, will support revolutionary advances in ways of diagnoses, treatment, and prevention.


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